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What You Don’t Know about High Cholesterol Can Hurt You

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonOctober 27, 2015

We all know high cholesterol is unhealthy, but most of the time there are no symptoms, so we may have high cholesterol levels and unknowingly be putting our bodies at risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

More than 102 million American adults have cholesterol levels above the healthy range, states the CDC, telling us that what you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. Learn more from these high cholesterol facts to stay heart healthy.

Must-Know Facts About Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance — made by the liver and found in some foods — that circulates in the bloodstream and is vital to the body’s healthy functioning. However, too much cholesterol in the blood can be dangerous to heart and vascular health.

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Here are some basic facts about cholesterol that everyone should remember:

  1. There are two kinds of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is also called “good” cholesterol, and it actually helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries, as well as helping protect against heart attack and stroke. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, is the main source of high cholesterol levels.
  2. Cholesterol has two sources. The body produces about 75% of blood cholesterol, and the other 25% comes from food sources —primarily animal products. The cholesterol produced by the liver is enough to support bodily processes like digestion and making hormones. However, some people inherit genes that cause their bodies to make too much cholesterol.
  3. High blood cholesterol has no symptoms. People don’t generally experience any symptoms from high cholesterol in and of itself, therefore many people don’t even know their cholesterol is too high.
  4. High cholesterol can be detected with a simple blood test. Screening to measure blood cholesterol should generally take place every 5 years for adults over 20, says the National Cholesterol Education Program. Those at higher risk — including men over 45 and women over 50 — may need to get tested more often.

The Dangers of High Cholesterol in Seniors

When seniors — or any of us — gets a blood test for cholesterol, the laboratory measures levels of HDL, LDL and triglycerides. The total number for HDL and LDL should, optimally, be below 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). Anything above that could indicate high cholesterol. At the same time, the specific numbers are important: having HDL below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women can increase the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

For seniors, it’s particularly important to get screened for high cholesterol. Cholesterol levels rise as we age, says NIH Senior Health, and in particular, women’s LDL levels tend to increase after menopause.

Older age isn’t the only risk factor, either. Cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, or a family history of early heart disease can also affect LDL levels. For seniors with high cholesterol, it’s critically important to work with a physician to determine a goal for lower LDL and healthy lifestyle habits.

Health Benefits of Lowering Cholesterol

Lowering cholesterol has a huge effect on cardiovascular health. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, high levels of LDL combined with other risk factors like the ones discussed above can increase the likelihood of heart disease or heart attack. At the same time, appropriately high levels of good cholesterol can help protect against heart attack, stroke and even dementia.

Lowering cholesterol may require a number of therapeutic lifestyle changes:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Weight management
  • Not smoking
  • Heart-healthy diet

In some cases, a physician may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug like a statin or a cholesterol absorption inhibitor. But, with or without drug treatment, a healthy lifestyle and regular screenings are key to maintaining desirable cholesterol levels — and living well into one’s golden years.

Take this opportunity to become educated about your cholesterol and get at-risk family members tested. If you or your family has been affected by high cholesterol, we invite you to share your experiences in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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